“Once started in the pursuit of growing things, the fascination in them is very strong...”
Vassar Miscellany, Volume XL, Number 8, 1 May 1911
Vassar students expressed an early interest in horticulture and gardening. The 1868 Annual Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Vassar College mentioned, just three years after the college opened, a Floral Society, created as, “an association for exercise and improvement in ornamental gardening,” that enabled students to purchase plots of land and use “their own taste freely in laying it out, and in planting and decorating it.” In an article in The Vassar Miscellany in 1911, Frances Prentice Valiant ‘13, recalled hearing about this society. “I remembered,” she said, “having heard that in the first years of the college there was a Floral Club, and each student who was willing, paid her fifty cents and received a patch of ground in the Circle, ‘for her very own.’” Valiant also noted that the society was later discontinued because “with zealous young ladies from the far east, west, south, and north each planting her own particular native flowers, the results were so startling that a dignified committee protested and drove the young ladies out.” Thus began a tradition at the college of alternating admiration of and concern about its flowerbeds.
The early students did not view gardening solely as a form of entertainment or a creative outlet. They also regarded horticulture as a necessary element in the academic curriculum. In 1872, a Vassar alumna wrote in The Vassar Miscellany, “There is one want which we hope the Trustees will soon supply; and that is a Conservatory for the cultivation of tropical plants. This is not a luxury; it is an appropriate, essential adjunct to a Young Ladies’ College.” Another student advocated for this addition in 1881 stating that a conservatory would “furnish the Botany classes with plants for daily examination” and “give them an idea of the wealth of the tropical flora.”
In 1886, William R. Farrington of Poughkeepsie, proprietor of a china and glass store on Main Street, donated a thousand dollars to Vassar to build a conservatory in honor of his late wife Eleanor. The new conservatory, 40 feet long and 18 feet wide, was built behind the south wing of Main building, between where the Kautz Admission House and Ferry House are located today.
The Eleanor Conservatory was completed in October of 1886.
By October of ‘86, the construction was complete and a bronze memorial tablet, brought from Switzerland by Farrington and declared “a work of great artistic merit” in The Vassar Miscellany, was hung over the entrance, dedicating the building to Eleanor and welcoming the students into their new conservatory. William Farrington’s niece and adopted daughter, Mabel G. Farrington ’08, no doubt passed often beneath this tribute to her aunt.
Plants donated from many institutions and from residents of the community quickly filled the empty shelves. Professor Asa Gray, the founder of Harvard’s botany department and, in 1872, its Herbarium, donated over one hundred rare plants from the Botanical Gardens of the University. Farrington also contributed a large water-lily basin near the conservatory and obtained plants from the Duke of Sutherland’s conservatory at Trentham Hall, in England. “Home Matters” in of The Vassar Miscellany for October 1887 praised the Eleanor Conservatory’s “very good working collection of plants,” noting that it was “exclusively under the direction of the Professor of Natural History, in order to supply during the fall and winter necessary specimens for botanical work.”
Students at the Eleanor Conservatory ca. 1890
Two laboratories and one classroom were built inside and used by the botany classes. While space was limited, nearly every course in the botany department had space “sufficient to permit of practical work,” as described in an article about the conservatory’s history in 1940 in the Vassar Alumnae Magazine.
The Eleanor Conservatory also served as an opportunity for all students to appreciate nature in its most beautiful and rare forms. The Vassar Miscellany “Home Matters” in May of 1886 declared that the Eleanor Conservatory “not only increases the resources of the Natural History department, but provides for all of the students of Vassar College a source of enjoyment that few colleges in the country afford.”
The Miscellany News in 1915 describes a reception for Dr. and Mrs. MacCracken as “tastefully decorated with palms and ferns from the college conservatory, “ but rare and peculiar plants were generally cultivated rather than the more common varieties. Announcements of such specimens of particular interest appeared in the Miscellany News, such as that for “the bird plant” and its “striking orange and blue quills,” in November 1918. A Miscellany News article from 1920, “Do You Know the Conservatory” by “M.C. ’24,” described the diversity of plants available for study and admiration: “Soon you discover that there are dozens of other things crying out to be noticed” including many varieties of ferns “with ponderous names...pepper plants with bring red and yellowish orange fruit...tiny lavender flowers, awe-inspiring in their perfection,” and many different types of mosses, cacti, and water plants.
The conservatory provided both aesthetic and academic benefits, but maintaining the Eleanor Conservatory over the years was difficult and expensive. In 1901, only 12 years after its construction, the conservatory had to be virtually rebuilt. Twenty years later in 1928, it suffered fire damage after a student left the gas of a Bunsen burner on in one of the laboratories, resulting in losses amounting to $200. Weak foundations and a generally unsafe condition led to the erection in 1940 of a complete reconstruction, known as “Eleanor the third.” Professors and students also consistently requested additions, renovations and more equipment for the conservatory—and the science departments in general. In 1941, Professor Edith A. Roberts wrote a letter to President MacCracken requesting a covered passageway between New England and the Eleanor Conservatory to protect plants during transfer, save time and confusion when moving from each building during class and facilitate the conduction of experiments. President MacCracken replied that available funds would “not permit of building the addition, and it is clear that the addition is wasteful in plan.”
Roberts’s request for the passageway may have been excessive, but the growing number of students in the science departments by 1941 did create a need for larger workspaces. New England Building, which had housed since its erection in 1901 the four departments of natural history, became too small for even two of these departments. Renovations to New England, begun a few years later, included a new greenhouse located on the back of the building, dividing academic plant study between this new greenhouse and the Eleanor Conservatory. Over time, the New England greenhouse became the primary academic greenhouse used by the biology department, while the conservatory, in addition to housing some of Vassar’s botanical collection, housed also a sculpture studio, providing art students with natural light during all seasons.
A similar redistribution of responsibility between greenhouses occurred in 1974 when the new Olmsted Hall of Biological Sciences included a new greenhouse at the back of the building. Although the biological sciences, zoology, botany (plant science) and physiology had been brought together as disciplines as a biology department in 1962, Olmsted housed the fused department for the first time in a single site, and the greenhouse was used to fulfill the needs of these disciplines. New England building was repurposed to house several multidisciplinary programs, leaving its attached greenhouse to serve mostly grounds purposes. In The Miscellany News in 1982, Peggy Hayes ‘83 noted that an employee of the grounds department, Sarah Richardson, ran the greenhouse, starting “the plants for the spring planting” and also cultivating “plants for use throughout the College.”
Restoration of campus buildings became a priority when Frances Daly Fergusson assumed the presidency of Vassar in 1986. Its state of disrepair due to ivy damage and the overlap between the greenhouses on campus drew her attention to New England. During a complete renovation of New England, its greenhouse was razed and its remaining functions were shifted to the grounds greenhouses beyond Skinner Hall and the Olmsted greenhouse. The date of demolition of the Eleanor Conservatory is unclear, though it most likely also occurred in mid-1980s, when the Olmsted greenhouse and newer sculpture studios in the Doubleday Studio Art Building rendered it purposeless and an unnecessary expense.
The Olmsted greenhouse in 1975
The grounds greenhouses beyond Skinner Hall were originally referred to as the “Vassar greenhouses” or the “college greenhouses.” When the Belle Skinner Hall of Music was built in 1932 they became the “Skinner greenhouses” because of their proximity to the new building. Erected in the early 1900s, these greenhouses served practical purposes on campus, such as growing lettuce, radishes, beets and other vegetables to be served in the dining halls or growing ornamental plants and flowers to be used for decorations around campus. Frances Prentice Valiant ’13 visited these greenhouses in 1911. “The entire centre, of one,” she noted, “was occupied by orderly rows of tall, clear-colored beet plants, almost large enough to use. There was also parsley, and a ‘filler-crop’ of radishes. Every inch of space was used, sometimes in the beds, by plants to be set out in the circle, sometimes on the floor under the tables, by plants being stored.”
This role transitioned in the mid-1900s towards more ornamental purposes when the greenhouses grew cut flowers instead of vegetables to decorate dining halls, receptions, buildings and the grounds. Lois Glover and Marianne Wickersham wrote in The Miscellany News in 1940 that this transition occurred after “the students went on strike against being fed so much of the leafy lettuce.”
After this transition, according to the college horticulturalist and superintendent of grounds at the time, Henry Downer, Vassar produced more flowers for cutting than any college he knew of. Glover and Wickersham note that, by the 1940s, the Skinner greenhouses produced “enough flowers each week to decorate the 231 dining room tables and numerous public rooms on campus.” The greenhouses grew white and dark red chrysanthemums in the fall, sweetpeas, snapdragons and calendula in the winter; and daffodils and tulips in the spring to provide “fresh masses of flowers” to decorate the college all year round. In 1955, an announcement in The Vassar Chronicle during orchid season encouraged students “to visit the greenhouse where they may see the colorful plants from which corsages are made.” The greenhouses run by the college horticulturist also served an academic purpose as the site of horticulture classes in the biology department.
The high costs for heating and structural maintenance made the Skinner greenhouses, like the Eleanor Conservatory before them, expensive to maintain. According to Robert Kluge, director of plant operations in 1976, the Skinner greenhouses cost an estimated $24,304, roughly three times the comprehensive fees for a single student. Also during that year, a ruptured steam pipe to the site required $45,000 to repair. And the horticulturalist position was left vacant after the death of the college’s longtime horticulturist, Sven Svard, the summer before, leaving groundskeepers and plant operators to manage the building.
In the spring of 1976, a decision by the Financial Planning Committee in the spring of 1976 to close the greenhouses reopened the perennial debate over their necessity. In The Miscellany News Professor of Biology Francis Ranzoni called the proposed closings “a reduction of amenities...a measure against the quality of life.” Students wrote articles about closing these greenhouses. In “Showcases Enshrined by Tradition to Go,” Ed Hollander ’76 asserted that “the result of the decisions not to hire a horticulturist and to close these greenhouses would be disastrous to the Vassar campus and the student body as well. The campus will soon deteriorate.” In an article in May, another student cited Vassar’s grounds as a major attraction for prospective students: “The college is at cross purposes with itself. They’re cutting out the very things which attract students to Vassar. Though students aren’t coming for Vassar’s flowers, they like what it represents.”
At the alumnae association meeting in that month, President Simpson announced that some “temporary funding would be found to keep horticultural projects going until a permanent endowment could be set up” and money was made available to maintain the greenhouses to support course offerings, keep up the grounds and house interesting botanical specimens. In October, Sara Boonin ’78 reported in The Miscellany News that the trustees had followed up Simpson’s promise by authorizing the addition of one million dollars to the $8.5 million goal of “Vassar ’78,” a pending development drive, for a “horticultural foundation.” Boonin quoted Director of Development Herb Shultz: “This would be set up as an endowed fund, the income of which would be used to support horticulture at Vassar.” The development drive fell short of its goal, and the horticultural foundation was not formed.
Two significant appointments, however, raised hopes for the facilities’ future. In 1978, a new horticulturist, David Stoller, was appointed to teach a course in the biology department and to improve the Skinner greenhouses. Stoller confirmed to Misc. reporter Aaron Holsberg ‘81 Vassar’s commitment to its grounds, calling the grounds and greenhouses, “an asset to this college - not a luxury but a necessity to our future welfare.”
In 1984, Martin Pinnavaia succeeded Stoller, not as the college horticulturist, but as head gardener of Skinner greenhouses. Horticulture classes were no longer taught, and the only other greenhouse on campus was the Olmsted greenhouse. Under Pinnavaia, the Skinner greenhouses were solely used to maintain the campus grounds, growing annuals for the flower beds, plants for outside planters, and herbs for the dining halls. A Miscellany News article, “Pinnavaia Presides over the Skinner Greenhouse,” by Matthew Bock ’12, asserts that Pinnavaia’s goal, however, was not to only increase the college’s aesthetics, but to “revamp the real purposes of the greenhouses to better serve the community.” Pinnavaia also worked closely with the biology department and contributed to the collection in the Olmsted greenhouse used for biology courses.
At various points during Pinnavaia’s career at Vassar, which ended in January 2012, the Skinner greenhouses faced the risk of removal. The closing of the greenhouses did eventually occur in the summer of 2013 due to the high expenses of heating them and the future needed for repairs.
Fourth Annual Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY, 1868-9
Vassar Chronicle, “Orchids,” Volume II, Number 3, 16 September 1944
Vassar Miscellany, Volume I, Number 1, 1 April 1872
Vassar Miscellany, Volume XL, Number 8, 1 May 1911
Vassar Miscellany, Volume X, Number 7, 1 April 1881
Vassar Miscellany, Volume XV, Number 8, 1 May 1886
Vassar Miscellany News,
“Reception for Dr. and Mrs. MacCracken” February 5, 1915
“The Bird-Plant” November 14, 1918
“Do You Know the Conservatory?” November 10, 1920
“Eleanor Conservatory Scene of Fire” October 17, 1928
“South of Skinner We Learn of Flowers, Flagstones And Where the Leaves Go” November 9, 1940
“Bio Building Sprouts” October 20, 1972
“Greenhouses to Close” April 26, 1976
“Showcases Enshrined by Tradition To Go” April 26, 1976
“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” February 27, 1976
“Vassar Grounds: Sandbox or Arboretum” May 1, 1976
“Horticulture Foundation with $1 Million Goal Set Up to Counteract Budget Cut” October 29, 1976
“Horticulturist Cites Grass, Plants as Grounds Priorities for Future” November 3, 1978
“The Eleanor Greenhouse, An On-Campus Oasis” January 22, 1982
“Greenhouses Scheduled for Destruction” April 12, 1991
“Pinnavaia Presides Over the Skinner Greenhouse” December 10, 2009
Vassar Archives and Special Collections,
MacCracken Folder 17.47, Greenhouses:
Letters between Edith A. Roberts to President MacCracken. “Greenhouse Addition.” September 1941
MacCracken Folder 17.22 Eleanor Conservatory:
“Eleanor Conservatory” Date estimated 1940-1945